-a thing regarded as too unimportant or easy to be worth much consideration
This post is about two of Beethoven’s compositions with the title Bagatelle, and I’ve had to resort to the dictionary for a definition of the word, or else this post would never have seen the light of day. It is a difficult musical genre to pigeon-hole; perhaps that is why composers use the title, as a rather imprecise descriptor without too many expectations or musical ‘baggage’ attached.
Bagatelles crop up in unexpected places; the name in a musical sense was first used by Couperin in a work for keyboard named ‘Les Bagatelles‘ from his Pieces de clavecin, Second Livre, 10eme Ordre, in 1717. Since then, there have been Bagatelles for piano by composers from Beethoven to Bartok; Liszt’s Bagatelle sans tonalité is one of his fascinating late works. Saint-Saens composed a suite of them; Russian composers Lyadov and Tcherepnin wrote examples as did Lennox Berkeley – his for two pianos. Howard Ferguson and Australian composer Carl Vine have each composed a set of five.
But it is Beethoven’s three sets of Bagatelles, Op 33, Op 119 and Op 126 with which most pianists are familiar. Some of the easier ones provide a way into Beethoven’s piano music for pianists not yet ready to tackle the sonatas or variations.
One of my favourite bagatelles is No 3 from Op 126, the set dedicated to Beethoven’s brother, Nikolaus Johann, pictured right. The opus number tells us that it belongs to Beethoven’s ‘late’ period; the warm key of E flat major promises something rather special.
Here is Myra Hess:
This is a lovely piece; brief, but elegant and poised, profound in its simplicity. There is but one main melody which appears at first in different registers with varied accompaniments, and whose harmonic outline is then wreathed in demisemiquavers high in the piano’s heavenly regions before gradually descending to earth. There is a magical pedal effect at the end where the sustaining pedal is not released, giving a gently lingering, harmonic haze.
You won’t find Beethoven’s most famous Bagatelle in any of the three published sets, although it may have been intended for one of them. It doesn’t even have an opus number – rather it has a WoO number – Werke ohne Opuszahl 59. The manuscript is lost; the piece was only published long after Beethoven’s death, transcribed by the German writer, Ludwig Nohl, (right) who stated that the date on the manuscript was 27 April, 1810. There is considerable scholarly debate about the lady for whom it was written, with numerous theories put forward. It is, of course – ‘Für Elise’, which first appeared in 1867 in Nohl’s Neue Briefe Beethovens. The link to the first edition is here.
Just play five notes of the opening RH motif –
E D#E D#E – and the piece is instantly recognisable.
I’m always pleased if pupils ask to learn ‘Für Elise'; there is much to be gained from mastering the mellifluous flow of the semiquavers at the beginning – the bit that everyone knows… After that come the technical challenges of the middle section, in F major, introducing a LH Alberti bass beneath a singing melody, and some nifty RH passage-work in demisemiquavers. Later, some urgent, repeated LH notes add to the piece’s technical requirements, providing a good first introduction to changing fingers in such passages, while the chords above them are colourful and dramatic. There’s an extended RH arpeggio in A minor too, and a chromatic scale descent – all useful grist to the mill, and a chance to demonstrate the real-music application of scales and arpeggios!
Here is Brendel: